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Developing Online Tools Against Terrorism

It is obvious that the Islamic State (IS) is winning the propaganda war against the West. The numbers of young men quitting their jobs and families in Europe and elsewhere to join IS in Syria is increasing, as is the number of young girls going there to become jihadi brides.

There are several reasons for this. For a start, going to war (when you are young and inexperienced) is an exciting prospect.

But more importantly, IS has managed to master social media better than any other entity (private or governmental) has ever done before.

This mastery is not because they have figured out some marvellous new formula on how to best use Facebook and Twitter. Their message that the Caliphate is an ideal world governed by God’s Law and so free of poverty and inequality is clear and consistent.

This clarity and consistency is wholly missing from Western efforts to counteract IS propaganda, as a recently leaked US State Department memo has conceded.

It seems that the members of the ‘message working group’, consisting of officials from the UAE, Britain and the USA who are spear-heading Western propaganda against IS, are not working well together. The structure of the working group is less than optimal and does not enable diverging views to be resolved.

In addition to failing to send out clear and consistent messages, the West has failed to engage IS in debate on the ideological or religious levels. Perhaps this is because politics are complicating the task of fighting terrorism through social media.

However other (mainly non-governmental) groups are developing online tools against terrorism.

Information cascades

These online tools mainly focus on analysing social media for clues that ‘forecast’ upcoming terrorist events. The tools are supplemented offline with on-the-ground information-gathering and analysis by humans.

For example, CySis, the CyberSocio Intelligent-Systems Lab in Arizona State University, is currently researching ‘information cascades’ and how they can be used to develop online tools to counter terrorism.

An information cascade occurs when people decide to do something because other people are doing it, even if doing it goes against their better judgement.

CySis expects that analysing information cascades will explain why people act in this (supposedly irrational) way, how likely they are to cascade incorrect information or actions, how such behaviour may arise and desist rapidly, and how effective attempts to originate a cascade tend to be under different conditions.

This research is considered crucial because IS has developed expertise in creating memes that resonate with Muslims and indeed with disillusioned non-Muslims. JSON formatter

meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. It acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices that can be transmitted through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.

The memes created by IS give rise to information cascades that persist until disillusion sets in, such as eventually arises with Jihadi brides who end up wishing to return to their original countries and families.

Structural diversity

One of the reasons IS is so successful is because they send out multiple versions of each of their messages through multiple channels.

The structural diversity of messages that go viral how a particular news item, image or meme spreads in a variety of directions is important in understanding how information cascades can be created through online messages.

For instance, a single message received from a single source is less likely to go viral than the same message received from three separate sources. CySis have discovered that when a message spreads to a variety of online communities, it is more likely to go viral, ie spread rapidly throughout the Internet.


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